We got to chat with Alesana vocalist Shawn Milke on their 10-year anniversary tour celebrating their 2006 release On Frail Wings Of Vanity And Wax about the past, present and future of the band. Milke discusses where the band were circa 2006, the choices they made to get them where they are today, and what is in store for the next record (which is already underway).
Now that we did one,
It’s time we show you round two,
Happy Wednesday, punks!
Curtain up. This is the end you’ve all been waiting for. After two previous installments–The Emptiness (2010), A Place Where The Sun Is Silent (2011)–The Annabel Trilogy comes to a close with Alesana‘s fifth studio record, Confessions. Shawn Milke (vocals, guitar, piano) himself described the new record as “a panic attack” in our recent interview, and while he certainly didn’t exaggerate, Confessions is far more enjoyable than that. True, the eleven song compilation pushes the boundaries of comfort at times with dissonance and complicated structures (“The Acolyte,” “Through The Eyes Of Uriel”), but those alienating moments are relieved by catchier, pop-ier, more easily digestible sequences (“The Goddess,” “Fatal Optimist”) that effectively complete the conceptual masterpiece.
Much like A Place Where The Sun Is Silent, if you go into Confessions with the mindset you’ll be listening to an album, you probably won’t have the best time. Most tracks have more in common with movements of a score than actual rock songs, just as their creators are more akin to composers than standard hardcore musicians. You may have to listen to it several times before a good deal of the record sinks in in a satisfying way, but each time you will discover new, exciting elements. From humorous lines like “Dearest love I hope this finds you well/ I am kidding, this is probably Hell” (“Paradox”), to nursery rhyme melodies (“Through The Eyes Of Uriel”), and even reincorporating the single “Fatima Rusalka” into the Annabel narrative (“Fatal Optimist”), Confessions is an emotionally exhausting and surprising journey front to back.
While the album opens on an incredibly strong, entrancing note with “It Was A Dark And Stormy Night,” we turn our greatest attention to the closer (“THIS IS THE FINAL ACT!”), “Catharsis.” Like The Emptiness‘s “Annabel,” the last piece of the puzzle is expectedly epic, reaching the height of drama in a symphony of menacing whispers, desperate screams, racing guitar lines, and building drums. Yet after one of the most well-developed climaxes in post-hardcore history, the ending (Spoiler Alert) comes as a shock difficult to grapple with. After the hours of complexity Alesana have given us over three volumes, it all comes to a finish in the throws of bitter irony and a vanishing act. Dennis Lee (vocals) screams the tragic, “Did man even notice as he was erased?” and with a poof, all is over. My first reaction: “WHAT?!” My reaction after listening to it about seven times: “That’s actually brilliant.”
Honestly, this review could take up dozens of pages to accurately represent all that Alesana have done here, but for the sake of being somewhat brief, what you need to know is this: Alesana have created a work. Over the years, they’ve strung together an entire universe thread by thread, and how many other bands can say that?
“I control my vision and my vision is you, the fans.”
Alesana have led arguably one of the most prolific careers of any hardcore band of the past decade, not necessarily in terms of the amount of albums released, but in terms of the amount of work put into each record. Anyone would be hard-pressed to name a band as consumed by the art of storytelling and as loyal to their artistic vision and their fans as this theatrical six piece sweetcore family. Yes, family, because that’s what Shawn Milke (vocals, guitar, piano) insists good music is all about. In the interview below, HXC picks Milke’s brain about the upcoming Alesana record, the self-started label Revival Recordings, and why there’s no place for ego or dollar signs in true art.
HXC: Why did you choose Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet as a lens to finish Annabel’s story?
Shawn Milke: Well Dennis and I really wanted to involve time travel in the third installment of The Annabel Trilogy. Whereas with The Emptiness and A Place Where The Sun Is Silent we chose the literature and then built our story in support of it, with Confessions it was the other way around. We decided on time travel and then discussed literature that we enjoyed surrounding that concept. L’Engle writes with a social conscience at the core which is something we love to do as well. There are several really cool allusions and nods to L’Engle throughout Confessions.
A Place Where The Sun Is Silent was even more winding and complex than The Emptiness in terms of sound. Sonically, what can fans expect of Confessions?
It’s intense. When describing the record to my wife I’ve used the phrase “panic attack” to explain several of the movements. There is a lot of chaos but on the other hand there is also a lot of super spacey and atmospheric passes. After all, this is a story about bending time and space. There are a lot of moments where you feel like you need to catch your breath. Several of the tracks are more progressive than anything we have ever done and that was very intentional. The storyline is coming to a climax and, especially with a handful of the songs, I very much wanted the listening experience to mirror the intensity. In the past we have had labels to please and “singles” to release so we would re-structure certain tunes to fit that particular mold. This time around it was about the album as a whole, about the whole creative experience being true to itself first and foremost. This was the most organic approach to writing a record that we’ve had since On Frail Wings of Vanity and Wax in terms of going with our gut. Pat and I were very on the same page musically and Dennis and I brought the story to life lyrically in a way that we never have before. It was a blast and I’m very, very proud of Confessions.
Why did you choose the track “Comedy of Errors” for a short film?
The decision to use Comedy of Errors for our short film/music video was an easy one. Stylistically, it is all over the map and really showcases what Confessions is all about, musically. It is the third chapter in the story and is a pretty critical turning point in terms of setting up the rest of the prose. Working with director Justin Reich on this was awesome. It is a dream come true to get to do a music video that is more a short film than anything.
You use several different media to tell your stories; film, literature–even the instrumentals on your records help narrate what the lyrics are saying. Why do you like taking this multilayered approach?
I love for our records to be multi-dimensional. A fan can choose to simply enjoy a song or they can dive headfirst into our fictional world. The idea is for the music to tell a story on its own before it’s even concerned with the lyrics and prose. The more layers you create, the more emotions you can convey. When you’ve layered something so dynamically and drastically it can then become the absence of layers that conveys the emotion. A brief moment of silence or a single cello can be just as effective as a full blown orchestra behind three-part guitar harmonies, layered vocals, and screams. It’s always about the push and pull, the building of the tension. Dynamics are everything.
How does it feel knowing The Annabel Trilogy is ending?
It is extremely bittersweet. On one hand I am extremely proud to see Alesana see the trilogy to its completion. On the other hand, Annabel has been a part of our creative psyche for the better part of nearly six years. It is tough to say goodbye to her but I am also pleased with her sendoff. It was a pleasure spending so much time with her and it is because of her that we have developed one of the most dedicated and caring core fan bases in the world.
It’s still early in the game to think about next moves, but do you see yourselves taking on other concept efforts this size in the future?
It’s hard to say, but I don’t think we would do quite this magnitude again. I’m very big on, “Okay, we accomplished that. Now, what can we do that is different and challenging?” We’ve done a trilogy so to do another one would feel like regurgitation. I have several ideas for our next EP that I am super excited about and it would create a whole new set of storytelling challenges.
You’ve earned yourselves an intensely loyal cult following over the years. How do you think that idea of community translates to Revival Recordings?
The hope is that our most core fans will also believe in the positive and artistic community we are creating at Revival Recordings. Music is the flame that lights my artistic world and I will only sign bands who push themselves as hard as I have, creatively. Positivity, open-mindedness, and a lack of ego are all major prerequisites for what we are trying to build. Good Music By Good People is not just a slogan, it is a way of life for our family of artists and our team.
What exactly are you trying to revive?
The belief that good art is paramount. I understand that the music industry is, in fact, a business and, in order to sustain a career, money must be made and success must be had. However, success is in the eye of the beholder and here at Revival we stare through a lens built by art, not the industry. Surround yourself with the right people and keep your focus on the art, the songs, the music itself and you can only win. It is up to us, the fans of great music and art, to not allow the industry to dictate what we enjoy. Fight for what you love and together we can revive an otherwise narrow-minded, dollar sign driven industry controlled by the few.
Revival is a very DIY project, much like Alesana’s overall approach to making music has been. Why do you think “doing it yourself” is so important?
If you do it yourself then you have the power to dictate your goals, your dreams, and your destination. I refuse to be told by some industry drone what my vision should be; I control my vision and my vision is you, the fans. I will be striving to develop great bands comprised of good people who do things the right way for as long as I’m allowed to live on this earth and I’ll be damned if I will ever base my decisions off of the opinion of some corporate zombie who wouldn’t know a good record if it kicked him in the ass.